Photos by Ollie Alexander, courtesy of KREWE
A New Orleans-based brand finds its place in the sun as a fashion industry darling and celebrity favorite
Stirling Barrett was about to board a plane back to New Orleans, his hometown and company headquarters, when he spotted a copy of Vogue on a newsstand. He flipped it open purposefully, turning straight to the page where his own face smiled back at him, right beside model Gigi Hadid. “There I was next to Gigi in the fashion bible,” Barrett recalls. “There was a bit of a ‘you’ve made it’ feeling. I remember being a little giddy about it.”
Barrett has plenty to smile about these days, not the least of which was his selection as a runner-up in 2016’s Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund competition for his independent eyewear brand, Krewe. It was that accolade that landed him a feature in one of the world’s most influential fashion magazines, along with a $150,000 prize and an industry mentor, Theory CEO and fashion investor Andrew Rosen.
The fact that Krewe has captured the attention of the biggest names in fashion—“Anna Wintour was super great,” Barrett casually says—as well as a growing list of celebrity fans is a testament to the tenacity of this little sunglass brand from the Big Easy. These days, everyone who’s anyone seems to be sporting Krewe frames—from Hadid and Kendall Jenner to Beyoncé and Reese Witherspoon. But it was only four years ago that Barrett decided to launch this company after achieving local success as a non-traditional fine-art photographer.
“I really wanted to change the perception of what could be done from New Orleans,” says the 28-year-old. “For a city that has such rhythm and ritual, I really felt like I had an opportunity to build a brand that could capitalize on that. This city has always been about the unexpected, and that’s what we’re about, too.”
Krewe’s collections are inspired by the culture of New Orleans, with styles named after streets and neighborhoods with their own distinct vibes. The St. Louis, for example, translates the wrought-iron balconies of the buildings on that French Quarter street into a brushed-metal bridge nestled between circular acetate frames, while the Ward’s gold-plated titanium design draws from the city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
As he was in the company’s earliest days, Barrett remains the sole designer of Krewe styles, but he calls on an in-house team of graphic designers and production specialists to help bring his ideas to life. The vision from the start, he says, has been to create a high-end product at an entry-level price point.
That means using top-quality materials including hinges from Germany and acetates from small-batch suppliers in Italy, custom tinting lenses and adding anti-reflective coatings, and giving each pair a 100-point inspection. It also means gearing customer service around a sense of Southern hospitality.
Barrett’s design studio is perched just a floor above the brand’s Royal Street flag- ship store. With doors to the balcony flung open on a mild midwinter day, he looks out above the streets of his hometown. “We’re in the heart of the French Quarter, which is one of the most unique parts of this city,” he says.“We’re not in the traditional fashion capitals, so we’re free to come up with our own inspiration. We’re not surrounded by the same street style as everywhere else, and that’s what I love about designing here.”
Barrett’s concept has resonated loudly in the fashion world, with the brand being featured in magazines including Elle, Vanity Fair and InStyle. In September of last year, Krewe put on a successful show at New York Fashion Week, but Barrett says this year he will focus on bringing fashion journalists and buyers to the Crescent City for a repeat installment of Krewe’s own “Weekend in New Orleans.”
In addition to being sold in the New Orleans flagship store and the Krewe website, the sunglasses are now found in hundreds of stores around the world, from Neiman Marcus and Club Monaco to myriad independent boutiques. In 2016, the second standalone Krewe store welcomed savvy sunglasses shoppers in Savannah, Georgia, and more are set to open in 2017. The company’s first optical collection launched in February, giving prescription eyeglasses wearers the chance to enjoy the same Krewe flair that the sun-lovers have. And Barrett has plenty more ideas where those came from; for example, a Krewe shop inside a shotgun-style “tiny house” is currently traveling by trailer around the country.
“IT’S JUST AS EXCITING FOR US TO SEE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT FAMOUS WALKING DOWN THE STREET WEARING OUR GLASSES as it is to see Gigi and Kendall wearing them,” he says.
“We want to represent the South and, more importantly, our customer’s individual style. That’s what I’m so proud of every day.”